Contemporary challenges and developments in technology inevitably trigger changes in the way we design and build our cities. SUMMARY, one of ArchDaily's Best New Practices of 2021, is a Portuguese architecture studio focused on the development of prefabricated and modular building systems. Striking a balance between pragmatism and experimentalism, the firm develops prefabricated solutions in order to respond to a driving challenge of contemporary architecture—to speed up and simplify the construction process. Founded in 2015 by the architect Samuel Gonçalves, a graduate of the School of Architecture of the University of Porto, the studio has presented at prominent events such as the 2016 Venice Biennale. We talked with Samuel about the firm's practical experience in prefabrication and modulation, as well as their experiments and forays into research.
Eduardo Souza (ArchDaily): The projects of SUMMARY stand out in their use of modular and prefabricated elements. Can you tell us a little about why you chose these systems and what their main advantages are?
Samuel Gonçalves: We chose these systems because they are the best solution to our main objective—the optimization of time and physical resources in construction. This has always been our challenge, the path we chose. We do this because we believe that there is a real need to accelerate and simplify the architectural process. First, because we are witnessing exponential demographic growth today, particularly in urban areas, which is developing at a speed and scale unprecedented in human history. This issue forces us to find faster and more effective construction solutions to respond to the growing demand for buildings. Second, because when we created the studio in 2015, Portugal was a post-crisis country, just out of the Troika's financial rescue program. In this context, a more “austere” approach to architecture has become an inevitability. In summary, we work with the conditions we find ourselves in.
At first, we believed that the most interesting aspect of prefabrication was speed. Today we find other advantages in this type of architecture. With the demographic rise mentioned above, there are more and more people who need houses to live in and fewer and fewer people who are trained or available to build them. The lack of labor in the construction sector is felt throughout Europe and has been recognized by industry leaders. In this context, prefabrication, as an industrial method that allows us to “build without builders,” might be the best solution, and little by little, it might become the rule rather than the exception. Traditional construction is doomed to disappear.
ES: Can you talk about the systems developed by the office—Gomos and Casa Casca?
SG: It's interesting that you ask us about two systems that have such different histories. The first was a success, the second a failure.
Gomos was born in 2015 from a group of companies that wanted to develop a building system entirely produced in the factory, transportable and able to be quickly assembled. Thus, the idea of creating a “building with slices” arose, in which each module comes completely ready from the factory with all interior and exterior finishes, thermal insulation, and water and electricity installations complete. It was a project developed by a huge team of companies in very different areas, from concrete prefabrication to industrial automation. We built a small house as a prototype and afterward the system was replicated and disseminated. Using these modules, we recently completed a mixed-use building and are now finishing a set of 11 rooms. The main objective has been achieved: to create a system of production that will allow for the construction of buildings much faster than traditional methods.
On the other hand, the panel system that we developed for Casa Casca just didn't work. The parts were too big (about 12m long), which would prove to be an issue when we started to study the logistical operations associated with assembly. The transport and handling of modules with those dimensions would be practically impossible. This was one of those cases where theory and practice did not align. But it was a very important project for us—it made us realize the sheer number of variables we had to take into account when working with prefabrication.
ES: From what I could see by studying the office's projects, there is a sustained concern for the logistics of production, transportation, and even the future of the structure after demolition—for finished and inhabited work as well. What does the world of architecture have to learn from this attitude?
SG: This is not a new position and it is essential for everyone who works with this type of architecture. It is not enough to design the works. It is necessary, with the same rigor and commitment, to design the logistical operations associated with them. And this logistical optimization is not just about making construction easier, faster, and more economical. It also serves to increase the efficiency of construction—that is, to ensure that it is done using less energy, less transport, less resources, and to allow for disassembly and reassembly. I would say that these are the main objectives of this project approach.
History has given us some lessons on this matter. The most paradigmatic case may be that of the German Democratic Republic, one of the pioneers of reinforced concrete prefabrication. In this case, prefabricated building systems were applied to respond quickly to the housing deficit that was felt in the country until the end of the eighties. However, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and with the consequent population exodus towards the West, there became a surplus of housing. Thus, parts of these buildings were dismantled, and the parts were transported and reused in new constructions not only in Germany but also in the Czech Republic, Poland, and Russia. This was the biggest ever “architectural recycling” operation and illustrates the potential of this type of circular architecture.
ES: There is a common fear among architects that the use of prefabricated systems can hinder creativity and even completely homogenize architectural production. What is your opinion on this?
SG: More than hindering creativity, we believe that these systems simply change the design process. This is not necessarily negative or limiting. If in traditional architecture we conceptualize a project and then think about how we are going to build it, in prefabricated architecture this sequence is necessarily inverted. In this case, we must first understand the system, the way the elements are manufactured, transported, and assembled, and only then can we look at the final shape of the construction. In other words, if in traditional architecture the shape determines the construction system, in prefabricated architecture it is the construction system that determines the shape.
At the same time, today we have reached a level of technological sophistication and a diversity of materials and systems so great that it would not be fair to blame prefabrication for any formal homogenization in architecture. On the contrary, we find numerous examples of constructions that explore new structural and volumetric solutions that are only possible thanks to prefabrication supported by digital methods. Ultimately, these systems, with their multiple variants, are promoters more than limiters of new ways of thinking about architecture and construction.
ES: The exhibition “The Reasons Offsite,” curated by SUMMARY, presents a collection of buildings and construction systems analyzing the historical evolution of modular and prefabricated architecture. What are the main lessons we can learn from examples from the past and what can we expect in the future?
SG: Within the scope of this exhibition we have studied dozens of cases, including works from the 17th century to the present. Through this process we learned a lot, even from a technical point of view, from the solutions developed by John Manning, Jean Prouvè, Buckminster Fuller, Saša J. Mächtig, and many others. However, we draw three essential conclusions from the work.
1. Modular and prefabricated architecture is not a product of modernism. It is part of the universal history of architecture. At least since the first half of the 19th century, it was already possible to identify cases of buildings entirely produced in the factory, organized in modules and shipped and assembled elsewhere, fitting perfectly into the definition of “offsite” construction.
2. The causes that led to the development of these solutions are of different impulses. In our work we find five main reasons that drove the development of prefabrication: colonization and exploitation (occupation of a territory lacking capable or available labor); emergencies (creating housing in the context of a catastrophe, such as war or natural disasters); cost (use of industrialized methods to reduce the cost of construction); technology (creation of solutions that push technological development); and the development of speculative solutions (proposing new ways of living to anticipate possible future scenarios). These five reasons were primarily responsible for the emergence of the diverse possibilities of prefabrication known today.
3. Finally, the most important lesson of all: most of these prefabrication experiments failed or at least did not achieve the desired scalability and replicability. This result is common even in projects developed by renowned architects, showing that the creation of new prefabricated and modular solutions is always a technical and commercial challenge.
With the speed at which new materials and new construction technologies are emerging, the future of this type of architecture is unpredictable. But there is one certainty: prefabrication will become increasingly necessary to respond to new demographic challenges and the growing labor shortage. In this context, the investment—by architects, construction companies, and universities—in the research and development of this specific area of architecture must be approached as a priority and with a sense of mission.
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